BY ALL ACCOUNTS, HIS CAREER AT MAINE TOWNSHIP High School in Des Plaines, 11., was remarkable only in its mediocrity. Known as Harry—if he was known at all—the shy student never rose above a C average. And while his peers found glory as football stars or student government officers, Harry toiled in obscurity, wheeling projectors from room to room as an audiovisual assistant. Such a nonentity was Harry that one classmate, Ernest Ricketts, recalls, “A girl I knew accepted a date with him and then decided, ‘Nope, can’t do it. Too much of a geek.’ ”
Call it a case of late blooming—or just plain Revenge of the Nerd. As fate would have it, Harry—after dropping out of college and several years spent hammering away as a carpenter—evolved into sexy, box-office swashbuckler Harrison Ford. Or, as Ricketts—now a Maywood, Ill., restaurateur—likes to say, “He went from ugly duckling to Indiana Jones.” Ford is not alone in his transformation from geek to glam. As the gallery of photos on the next few pages reveals, the stars—whether former lunchroom losers like Kevin Costner and David Schwimmer or leaders of the pack like Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts—have come a long way since their days of pep rallies, pimples and No. 2 pencils.
“Nobody was totally cool in high school,” explains Dr. Joyce Brothers, who says that overcoming early dweebiness can build character for the long haul. “When things are handed to you, you lose that burning edge to prove to the world that you are outstanding.” Even future beauties suffer the perils of puberty. At one time Batman Forever’s ravishing Nicole Kidman was abashed by what are now regarded as some of her best assets. Called Stalky by her classmates, she was a gangly, skinny 5’9″ by the time she was 13 and fanatically straightened her frizzy red curls (one childhood acquaintance remembers it as “Shirley Temple hair on steroids”) with a blow-dryer. “The whole thing is to conform when you’re younger,” she said. “I didn’t have a very conforming look.”
Those whose four years were more horror show than Happy Days wince at the memory of their former selves. “I was a fat ugly geek, and socially it was a nightmare,” says Friends costar Schwimmer, 28, of his so-called life at Beverly Hills High. In that status-obsessed milieu, driving a 1976 Chevrolet Monte Carlo in the ’80s didn’t help. “I was humiliated to drive it,” he says. “It was a boat. You needed a docking license for that thing.” For Costner, adolescence seemed an agonizing wait for his growth spurt to kick in. Though on his way toward his current 6’1″ hunkiness by graduation time at Villa Park High School in Villa Park, Calif., he was only 5’2″ as a sophomore. “I was a small kid with big feet,” said Costner, who has claimed that in four years he had “only one date.”
But talent is a great equalizer. Consider Winona Ryder. Beaten up by bullies in junior high (“They thought I was a gay boy,” she has said of her then-androgynous looks), she went on to inspire awe on the stage in her drama class at Petaluma High School in Petaluma, Calif. Bespectacled and gawky, David Letterman compensated for his shyness by becoming the class smart aleck at Indianapolis’s Broad Ripple High School. “Even then he had a very sarcastic, sharp sense of humor,” recalls pal Jeff Echowsky, now an Indianapolis construction company executive. “It was difficult to keep up with him.” And David Caruso didn’t let his doughy, freckled face dampen his ambitions. “He had the courage in an all-boys school to say he was interested in acting as a profession,” says John Diorio, a teacher at Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, N.Y.
Of course there are always those blessed few who sail through adolescence. Cheerleader Sandra Bullock was voted Most Likely to Brighten Your Day at Washington and Lee High School in Arlington, Va. Fellow pom-pommer and honor student Katie Couric was already perky and popular at Yorktown High School, also in Arlington. “I’d like to say I was racked with self-loathing,” she says, “but I was lucky.” And no one gravitated to the in-crowd as naturally as Cindy Crawford. At DeKalb High School in DeKalb, Ill., she was gorgeous, brainy (after graduating as covaledictorian, she briefly studied computer engineering at Northwestern University) and kind.
Mere mortals, take heart: even the beautiful people still battle their inner nerd. “Being a celebrity doesn’t entirely get rid of geek feelings,” says Brothers. “You still feel people are going to discover the real you.” But in the end the square pegs stop looking for round holes and find their own unique niches. Think what someone like Letterman—whose $14 million-a-year fame is due in part to his self-deprecating shtick—might have become had he been popular way back when. As he said recently, “A lesson I’ve learned in life…because I was a certified dweeb in high school, is that that doesn’t represent the be-all and end-all of life.” Or, as W.C. Fields once said, “Ah, the good old days. May they never return.”
TOBY KAHN in New York City, JONI H. BLACKMAN in Chicago, LOIS ARMSTRONG and CAROLYN RAMSAY in Los Angeles and bureau reports